Monday, January 30, 2017

Trump Travel Ban: Reading the Splatter on the Wall

President Donald Trump's executive order banning travel from 7 Muslim-majority countries (Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Syria) is among the strangest and most shameful chapters in our history. As families are separated, travelers are detained, and federal agencies scramble to understand how the ban is to be enforced, the rest of the world is left trying to make sense of this action. What clear and present danger to the security of the United States has arisen, the urgency of which is so acute as to trigger the sudden roll out of a policy so vaguely articulated and slipshod in execution that it has resulted in institutional chaos?

As policy, this ban simply does not make sense. There have been no recent terrorist attacks on US soil perpetrated by citizens of or travelers from the affected countries. Very stringent protocols are already in place for the vetting of visa and green card holders. Even the refugee communities that are affected by the order are already subject to very thorough security procedures that have been continually updated and reinforced, there is no case to be made (as there was in 2011 when the Obama administration paused refugee processing to review its procedures after the admission of Waad Ramadan Alwan in 2009) for the necessity of a radical overhaul.

As strategy the order makes even less sense than it does as security policy. While it is true that ISIS, Al Qaeda, and other groups hostile to the United States are active in the affected countries, this does not argue for the wisdom of Trump's ban. A total travel ban (extending even to visa holders and legal residents of the US) is a contingency that a nation adopts in a time of war. Thus with his order President Trump has signaled that the U.S. is effectively at war with all the people of Libya, Sudan, Somalia, Iraq, Iran, Yemen, and Syria, a move that can only help the recruiting efforts of anti-US forces operating in those countries. 

This order can not be coherently read as policy, but must be viewed as pure politics. Donald Trump promised his supporters a "Muslim ban," and as Rudy Giuliani admitted, this order is effectively an attempt to make good on that promise. It is designed to create the impression that Trump is making up for laxness on the part of his predecessor. As policy it is a solution in search of a problem (even more, it is a solution that can only exacerbate problems we already have). But as theater it is an effective way of broadcasting to Trump's supporters, "now we are finally getting tough."

This is distressing for several reasons. The fact that the President would jeopardize the security of the US and its armed forces in pursuit of political advantage would be bad enough. But any assessment of the situation is made even worse by the real doubt that the political advantage to be had from this action is itself in any way meaningful. Despite having been sworn in more than a week ago the President seems to still be in campaign mode. That is strange, and is made stranger by the fact that the next election is almost two years away.

However the optics of the current moment might favor the President among his recent voters, the effects of this policy will have a very long time to percolate through the dynamics of our foreign and domestic affairs before their political impact is felt at the polls again. Have the President and his advisors really thought out the long term impact of this move, even in political terms? If not, and the ultimate political fallout of this order predictably works to the detriment of the administration, then we are faced with the very real possibility that the President and his team have sold out the safety and security of the United States for less than nothing. If that is the case, and the Trump administration will ultimately be shown to have shot itself grievously in the foot, one can only wonder at what future mistakes may be in the offing. If the Trump team proves as inept at political strategy as the current mess would seem to indicate, how competently will they conduct strategy in realms where the security and welfare of the United States are genuinely at stake?

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